Friday, November 20, 2009

Reverend's Reviews: Men Behaving Badly

I love every film by director Werner Herzog I've seen, starting with 1982's Fitzcarraldo and culminating most recently in his wonderful if sad Grizzly Man. I like Nicolas Cage a lot, especially when the actor is at his most histrionic in such offbeat movies as Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona and Face/Off.

I do not like the new Herzog-Cage collaboration, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (which is actually titled THE Bad Lieutenant ... on screen). While it shares some of its moniker and basic plot elements with Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), the remake/sequel/reboot opening today lacks most of what made its NYC-set forebear a very effective morality tale.

Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans police officer suffering from debilitating back pain related to an injury he sustained while saving a man's life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When McDonagh's prescription medication becomes ineffective, he turns to illegal — and illegally-gained — drugs, sex with a beautiful prostitute (Eva Mendes, in an underwritten, thankless role), gambling and setting up criminals without authorization in a misguided effort to soothe his pain and find the culprits behind the massacre of an immigrant family.

Whereas Ferrara's film was an intelligent if graphic exploration of a wounded man's quest for redemption, BL: Port of Call New Orleans has a hard time settling on such simple things as characters' motivations, needs and accents (Cage's changes inexplicably midway through). Ferrara's version was steeped in Catholic imagery and symbolism. Here, the only sign of religion is a kinky excess of saintly statuary in sexy fellow cop Fairuza Balk's bedroom.

I lay most of the blame for this misfire at the feet of first-time screenwriter William Finkelstein and longtime producer Edward Pressman (who also produced the original), but Herzog can't be let completely off the hook. The director desperately tries to indulge his favorite theme — man vs. nature — here, but the most he can incorporate aside from the devastated post-Katrina environment are occasional shots of displaced alligators and drug-induced iguana hallucinations.

Some fine actors including Val Kilmer, Shawn Hatosy and GLBT fave Jennifer Coolidge are mostly wasted in supporting roles. However, the long-MIA Brad Dourif makes a great impression as McDonagh's impatient bookie.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is being touted as Oscar bait and is being warmly received by some critics. Don't believe the hype. Instead, go and see That Evening Sun, which is already playing in New York and opens today in LA. It is a far better exploration of the lengths to which some men will go to right perceived wrongs.

Winner of the Audience Choice award for best feature film and a Special Jury Award for best ensemble cast at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival, That Evening Sun stars old pro Hal Holbrook as Abner Meecham. A Tennessee farmer consigned by his son (Walton Goggins, who played the sexy gay drifter in Red Dirt a few years back) to a nursing home, Meecham makes a break from the facility one day and returns to the home he shared with his late wife (who is glimpsed in flashbacks and is played by Dixie Carter, Holbrook's real-life wife).

Meecham is startled to find a new family renting his property and living in his former home. The new head of the household is Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon, who also produced), an alcoholic prone to abusive rages. His wife (Movie Dearest fave Carrie Preston) and teenage daughter are the usual recipients of the unemployed Choat's anger, but Meecham becomes his new target when the elder man decides to take up residence in an adjoining cabin.

Hostilities mount between Choat and Meecham and culminate in mutual acts of destruction. Holbrook is great as usual, and could rack up some nominations and/or awards for his soulful performance. While grim at times, That Evening Sun (well-adapted from a William Gay short story by writer-director Scott Teems) ends on a hopeful note once Meecham and Choat have learned the hard way that violence is never a successful route to conflict resolution.

UPDATE: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is now available on DVD and Blu-ray and That Evening Sun is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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